[“Plagiarism, copying and learning”]


Information technology has always been closely linked to the way we learn. Part of the learning process includes the reception of information -  although education in the fullest sense is a larger and more ambitious activity than simply informing. In universities we favour the lecture as one of a number of methods of both informing and teaching. It is interesting to note that the origins of the lecture may lie in a response to the limitations of the manuscript and incunabulum as a form of information technology. The lecture in a medieval university was a way of coping with the paucity of materials with which to teach. Reading aloud to many students  functioned as an information-giving activity, a way of dictating from a single available copy. The educational impact of the lecture was built on top on this, and has lasted long after mass publication did away with the need for the lecturer to make up for a lack of multiple copies by reading things out (though observers of the shrivelled state of contemporary teaching collections in British university libraries might well see the lecture assuming its ancient role once more – the short loan librarian reading aloud to a mass of student scribes perhaps?).


The process of listening to the educational narrative of a lecture, taking written notes of what is important and bearing in mind what is less so, thus developing powers of concentration, discrimination and summary - these are all intellectual benefits derived from a teaching medium that originated partly from the limitations of a previous, undeveloped state of information technology. Similarly, copying material from a short loan textbook and re-presenting it in summary form as one’s own has earned a comparable educational validity. The information technology of the quill pen or biro makes this a slow process. The student has time to dwell on the material being reproduced, analysing it and even adding notes, at the same time as they create a surrogate for texts that cannot be personally owned. This thoughtful reproduction of assimilated knowledge is not theft, it is education.


However, as Nick Moore notes in his Internet column in this issue, the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has created a national information and support service to aid the effort to stamp out plagiarism amongst students in British universities. Essentially this service is a response to the impact of information technology on learning – whereas in the past the paraphrasing and restatement of received knowledge was a fairly acceptable part of undergraduate and taught postgraduate coursework, this is now more problematic. The ease with which large chunks of electronic text can be copied and pasted into a word-processed essay or dissertation calls into question an age-old learning activity. It makes the simple restatement of knowledge a less than reliable demonstration of something having been learnt by the student.


There are a number of significant issues here for librarians and information professionals. In particular, it is cheering to note that a powerful national policy-making body like the JISC sees this as a problem for information managers, rather than the preserve of educationalists or something related narrowly to academic standards and progression. The UK National Plagiarism Advisory Service will be run by information professionals, situated in the Information Management Research Institute, part of the School for Informatics at Northumbria University. Yet again, the impact of information technology in education means that information professionals must move beyond the sphere of simple information provision and look at the use of the information provided. We have seen this already, in the area of user education - we know that where students display no more than mechanical information retrieval skills, we must now take responsibility for such students’ learning needs and teach the information literate use of the data they have retrieved. Similarly, in the area of plagiarism, we now are expected to help distinguish between the mechanical recycling of others’ intellectual property and the intelligent rehearsing of received wisdom and knowledge. Yet again the advance of information technology, rather than rendering library and information expertise redundant, has created a new application for our skills and professionalism.


So far so good. However, discussions of the interrelationship between information, information technology and education generally polarise at some point into two camps, one traditional, the other progressive and technology-focussed. The traditional camp would attack developments such as the derivative use of modern electronic library services which enable students to draw together a multitude of sources without the commitment, deliberation and thought of previous years. Similarly, online lectures are dismissed because they lack the personal touch of real human teaching. Plagiarism software, such as the ‘turnitin’ package purchased for the UK by JISC might detect more ambitious fraud at higher levels of academic achievement. But more modest early undergraduate efforts – which at best can be a thoroughly acceptable procession of well-meant derivativeness – will now be indistinguishable from plagiarism because of the ease with which facile textual composites can be electronically assembled without any intellectual effort. Plagiarism software is a doomed attempt to fight fire with fire – a use of IT to limit the damage done to education by IT.


The progressive argument is worth rehearsing as well. This philosophy would argue that the effect of information technology on education has been to bring into the foreground shallow learning and pedestrian achievement rather than cause it. Educational and information technology now show how limited and undemanding much traditional educational activity may have been in the past. If so much of it can now be done by copying and pasting, how valuable was it in the first place?  Anyone who has delivered user education lectures to a group of university students, whose presence was compelled less by the need to experience the personal transmission of learning than desperation for a class ticket must question the role of traditional lectures. Better to replace this ritual of ‘presentee-ism’ with online tutorials that can reproduce the expository value of lectures without the charade of student presence. Above all, online lectures can build in interactive exercises that compel attention in the way that passive lecturing cannot. IT thus creates higher standards than ever before. Plagiarism software is part of this raising of standards: it detects derivative work that would have gone unnoticed previously. Students will now consistently have to offer something that is genuinely original for the first time in educational history


All such discussions of education and information and communications technology are a good thing because they make us think about the educational process and the role of information within it.  It is important to note that the essential book on educational technology in higher education during the 1990s was not entitled ‘Doing teaching with technology’, but ‘Rethinking University teaching’ (Laurillard, 1993). The thinking precedes the implementation of the method, regardless of its IT platform.


So what does thinking about plagiarism technology help us discover about the role of information in education? I would suggest that it helps us see that there is no totally reliable evidential way of guaranteeing educational attainment. Both the traditional and progressive cases above miss this point by arguing that either a traditional or progressive approach to the use of information technology gives a better guarantee of quality in higher education.


Perhaps we should change tack and listen to novelist Martin Amis describing the feeling of true educational attainment which he experienced as a university student. Borrowing F.R Leavis’s words, he spoke of the moment of ‘friction, the pregnant arrest’ that marked the discovery of literature for him, a self-confessed latecomer to reading the classics. It was this discovery of the benefits of reading for learning that meant his work had integrity (he did get a First after all).


Amis’s university education was good, because it was undertaken in good faith. This faith in the act of reading for learning is best generated earlier on in our educational career. This can be done with computers or it can be achieved with age-old methods. It is something that parents with a commitment to their child’s reading can cultivate, something which good schoolteachers engender in their students, and something that librarians in school and pubic libraries have been pursuing for years in their work to encourage the reading habit. If you value the act of reading as an act of personal enrichment and learning, then you will know why you are going to university.


The JISC has spent £500,000 purchasing the ‘turnitin’ for the UK university system. This is money well spent. But it is money that those struggling to fulfil the reading and learning potential of young people earlier on in the educational process will view with envy. If young people are taught to read intelligently and discriminatingly as soon as possible in their intellectual development, then the work that they produce later on in their scholastic careers will have integrity. Clever software cannot guarantee such integrity on its own. Equally essential is adequate resourcing for school and public library collections and IT network infrastructure, adequate resourcing for decent opening hours for public libraries, and for good levels of well-trained staffing, so that IT-literate librarians will have time to cultivate the reading habits of young, inexperienced library users.    


It is good to see that information management specialists will be acting as part of the general effort to guarantee quality and root out fraud in higher education. But perhaps the real guarantors of quality are those who create a thirst for reading, knowledge and thought prior to university. Without their work higher education would be a void waiting for something to fill it. We should give credit where credit is due – and with it, investment of resources also.



Nick Joint


‘Library Review’.


Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking university teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge